When I teach seminars on watershape design, I always emphasize the importance of having a list of questions to ask prospective clients during initial conversations. It’s a point that always seems to ignite discussion – and it usually ends up with someone in the audience asking me to provide such a document for general use.
I always refuse to do so, not because I consider my approach a trade secret, but rather because everyone’s business and approach to clients is a little different and the questions I ask might not be exactly the questions everyone else would (or should) ask.
The issue has come up frequently enough through the years, however, that I’ve finally assembled
a list not so much of specific questions, but instead of areas of inquiry that I think should be pursued in early conversations with clients. These topic areas aim at gathering information both about the clients themselves and what they’re looking for in a watershape and their overall exterior environment.
What I offer here is no more than a foundation for developing a questionnaire of your own – something that reflects your personal style and need for information. In my own operation, we’ve refined these categories of inquiry into a single document that helps us keep track of key bits of information in a format that keeps us from needing to retrace our steps or ask clients the same questions about things we already should know.
We’ve found it to be an invaluable tool: Not only does it help us delve into key details in a way that informs our design work, but it also helps us educate our clients about design possibilities and begins the important process of shaping expectations.
MORE AND MORE
The list of information categories breaks into three specific areas: We’re after details on the clients themselves, on what they’re looking for in a watershape and on the nature of the site. Some can be addressed on the phone in the first contact call, but the majority is elicited during our first face-to-face meeting.
Flexibility is the key: Every client and every situation are a little bit different, so pursuing information isn’t about asking questions in an exact order or giving equal emphasis to each bit of data. The key, when all is said and done, is to make sure that we’ve covered all the bases adequately before we sit down to generate a design.
It also helps to remember that this quest for information is less about talking than it is about listening – something about which I can always use a reminder. In fact, I find that having a list of questions on hand helps me focus on keeping my mouth shut and my ears open.
My list is helpful for a more practical reason as well: There are so many options for watershapes and surrounding areas that having a registry of possibilities on hand helps even one who is intimately familiar with all of them remember to bring them into consideration.
So, let’s get into questionnaire topics, mindful that each of the following items can be broken down in an infinite number of ways to suit your style and needs and that these are points of departure, not a prescription you should pick up and use.
[ ] Motivations: This is always among our first areas of inquiry: What’s your motivation in wanting to own a watershape? The answers here will speak volumes about both the client and the potential design. You might hear, “I have arthritis and need hydrotherapy,” or “We’ve always loved being around water,” or “Our kids are getting older and we want them to be able to swim and play at home.”
Whatever it is – a longtime dream of having a pool, a wish to beautify the backyard, a desire to replicate an experience had elsewhere – you need to know what has set the entire process in motion. And remember: The first answer you hear isn’t necessarily the root motivation. You may need to spend some time on this one!
[ ] Decision-making: When you’re dealing with a couple, it’s extremely helpful to know which one drives the decision-making process. Sometimes it’s a shared interest, but more often than not, one or the other leads the way – and there’s great peril in making an assumption that it’s the husband and not the wife or vice versa.
(As an aside: I work as a design consultant and not as a contractor, so I’m not obsessed about meeting with both members of a couple as long as I know I’m working with the person who has taken the lead. It never hurts to have input from both, but in my work, it hasn’t proved to be essential.)
[ ] Family and usage: I am always keenly interested to know who lives in the household and who among them will likely be using the watershape on a regular basis. I want to know ages, genders and likely uses – swimming, play, exercise, games, lounging or visual appreciation? I also want to know about friends, visitors and parties – how often, how many people, age ranges? – and whether the guests will likely be business associates or family and friends.
I’ve found that knowing who will be using the pool, for what purposes and at what frequencies are among the most important bits of information I can have. If the watershape is there mainly for aesthetic purposes, for example, it opens the discussion up to a very different set of priorities and possibilities than would be the case if a sole user is after a pool for lap swimming.
TO THE WATER
The areas of inquiry listed above are about clients and intended uses. The next sequence leads us to the specifics of configuration and design and may incline us to emphasize certain details more than others.
[ ] Watershape type: This may seem brutally obvious, but you really do need to be extremely clear about the types of system or systems you’re discussing. There’s a common assumption these days, for example, that everyone who wants a pool also wants a spa. That may be true in the majority of cases, but there are certainly those who really want just one or the other.
If a spa falls within a project’s scope, it leads to a whole set of additional inquiries I’ll highlight a bit later on. If it’s all about aesthetics, they might be interested in a body of water – a fountain, say, or a reflecting pool – that doesn’t accommodate swimming at all. Not to beat on the obvious, but these are things you need to know!
[ ] Size, style, location: Most clients start with some notion of what they want their watershape to look like and where they want it to go on their property. Some will want a lagoon-style pool right near an entertainment area, while others may want an architectural design with a vanishing edge that maximizes a view.
As designers, we often find ourselves needing to influence those preconceptions, either because their sense of what they want is inappropriate to the site and the style of the architecture or there are practical or aesthetic issues involved in their sense of what belongs where in the available space. You need to know all about these suppositions on your clients’ parts – that is, you need to start with their ideas so you can either align your design with their thoughts or begin the process of persuading them otherwise.
[ ] Colors and materials: As I’ve mentioned in several past columns, the materials we have at our disposal these days definitely eclipse the options we had in the past. Indeed, this is one of the areas in which clients may have the fewest preconceptions about what they want. All-tile pools, for example, were once an extravagance but are now increasingly common as more and more designers present this option.
The same is true of various stone materials for decking, bond beams, benches, steps, planters and other structures and of the full range of interior finishes, from exposed aggregates and pebbles to polished aggregates and colored plaster. In all of these discussions, we gradually zero in on the color palette that will be expressed through the chosen materials – often by interfacing our selections with colors associated with the home’s exterior, interior or surrounding landscape.
[ ] Moving water: This is another area where clients may or may not have a very good idea of the possibilities. We bring up all sorts of concepts here – vanishing edges, perimeter overflows, waterfalls, vertical jets, rock waterfalls, leaping or laminar jets, runnels, spillways, sheeting water effects (and, it bears mentioning, the beauty of systems with perfectly still, highly reflective water) – and it’s rare to run into clients who are fully aware of what all those terms mean.
These discussions of motion also lead us into the related area of sound: As beautiful as water is visually, the sounds it makes when it moves can be used to create moods from exciting to tranquil. Some will crave variety and control over available effects, while others are satisfied with a trickle as background noise in an intimate space. There’s also a process of elimination: In some cases, they may say they want big waterfalls, but change their minds when we define just how loud they can be!
As mentioned at the outset, the way clients respond to questions about motivation and intended use will govern the emphasis you place on certain other areas of inquiry. That’s particularly true when you get to the following topics:
[ ] Physical structures: Among the areas in which pools in particular have evolved in recent years are those having to do with interior contours and edge treatments. Once again, there’s much to cover, including step configurations, benches, shallow lounging areas, swim-up bars, barstools inside the pool and other areas where things can be set up in ways that ease and encourage interaction between people in the water and those in dry surrounding spaces.
We also bring up beach entries and bridges as well as raised bond beams (for both aesthetics and extra seating) and stepping pads (to bring people into close proximity with the water). These discussions invariably fold back on early discussions of intended use and open any design to a variety of conceptual refinements.
[ ] Depth: This is another consideration that gets right back to intended use: How a swimming pool is to be used greatly influences the water depth and how you configure shallow and deep areas. If, for example, there is no interest in a diving well, there may be no need for a “deep end.” This opens the discussion to all sorts of possibilities, including traditional deep-end/shallow-end arrangements, middle-deep or middle-shallow configurations, various play-pool options and the simple beauty of all-shallow water.
Again, these discussions can lead to considerable design refinement. I always like finding ways to double back and press my clients to revisit their assumptions and think seriously about the implications of their stated desires. What I usually find is that they either stick to their guns – or to start over again design-wise in light of new information they’ve received through our conversations.
[ ] Hot water: As mentioned above, you need to know if the clients want a spa and what sort of features it should include. When some people think of “hydrotherapy jets,” all they’re considering is a small number of jets that do little more than churn the water, while others may be envisioning full-body massages.
There are also those who want to entertain several people in a spa, while others will want complete privacy for just one or two bathers. In addition, some may want to stand up in their spas or crave highly contoured seating and lounging configurations, while others prefer their pleasure in recumbent mode with simple steps and benches. Some want complete spa-side control of every element of the experience, while others will be happy with straight on/off options.
There’s also the possibility of heating the water in a swimming pool – another key area of discussion. In this case, the conversation is usually about technology, energy usage and ongoing expense – but there’s one area that needs discussing that I often overlook, and that has to do with the heating source: natural gas or LPG? This is also an opportunity to mention technologies including solar heating and heat pumps.
[ ] Exercise: If a pool is intended for exercise, this leads to discussion of exactly what’s to be pursued – lap swimming, diving, swimming in place, aquatic therapy, volleyball, water polo? As is the case with spas, this is an area where you need to get down to some fairly refined details (probably a column for me all on its own).
[ ] Remote controls: This is a hot area and has seen incredible advancements in recent years. Most homeowners these days want some level of electronic control, and without going into great detail here, suffice it to say there are many different options to consider, from basic on/off functions to remote access by phone or computer.
[ ] The surrounding environment: In weighing the possibilities around their watershapes, you need to get a sense of whether clients want an associated dining or cooking areas, sound systems, fire elements and/or landscape lighting. In this phase of our discussions, we raise those possibilities and also solicit information on their interest in shade structures, umbrellas, pool houses, cabanas or thatched huts.
[ ] Chemical treatment: We always ask clients about any allergies to or perceived problems with chlorine and often run into a strong bias against using any form of chlorine. These days, however, our bias is toward using saltwater chlorine generators, which often leads us to a need to dispel certain myths about chlorine treatment. No matter: We’re both sensible and flexible enough to explore other options, including ozone treatment in particular.
[ ] Safety: This is a tricky issue for many watershapers, and I have my own strong opinions on the subject, but I suppress them in speaking with clients and ask them openly about any safety concerns they might have. If there are small non-swimmers in the household or if entertaining young grandchildren is a big desire, we may suggest safety covers or alarm systems and, in some cases, various types of enclosures.
These are all huge topics with far-reaching design implications, and there may be many more issues you want to raise depending upon the nature of your business, patterns in your local market and the economic level of your client base. If you find yourself exploring other areas with any sort of frequency, add suitable topics to your questionnaire to make certain you always get the information you need.
All of the information you gather from your clients is basically without form or meaning unless and until you carry it all to the site and weigh it all against the opportunities the space opens for you.
As a designer, I need to know about the size, shape and topography of the property and the dimensions and style of the home. There’s also a need for information on soils and geology, so I make certain the clients know that these reports are a prerequisite to the contracting process.
For projects on which we’ll be providing oversight, we will get directly involved in obtaining this crucial information, but from our perspective as designers, topography and views are the main issues. With sloping lots, for example, vanishing edges come into play, as do step-and-wall configurations and various other possibilities. That call should be made based on the view and whether it’s something to which we want to call attention – or something we want to mask. The clients’ desire for privacy may be another determining factor.
The clients’ interest in proximity to water is another key issue (and was the subject in great detail of last month’s column). Will the watershape be next to, within view of or even part of the home itself? Or is it to be set at a more remote destination within the landscape? Will it be seen from main viewing areas, or will it be revealed only when the clients move away from the home and into the landscape?
As can be seen, the number of topics to cover and the amount of information that needs to be solicited can involve you in conversations that can last countless hours. The best and only shortcut I’ve found involves the use of a questionnaire, even if it is only for my personal reference: It keeps me focused, prevents doubling back over too much old ground and, perhaps most important of all, completely engages my clients in the process of designing their watershapes. And all it takes is a systematic approach and a willingness to write down their answers!
Bottom line: You can’t make any assumptions about what people want or don’t want and won’t know a thing until you ask. Drawing out all of this information is the only way I know to make sure I have all I need to give clients exactly what they want.
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected]